Almost two months have passed since Iraq's elections, and people there are understandably impatient to see a new government take office. But the real problem isn't the delay. Lengthy haggling over cabinet posts and other turf issues was inevitable among fledging politicians with no previous experience of democratic give-and-take. What is far more troubling are the significant sections of the Iraqi population whose rights could be sacrificed when the Shiite religious parties and autonomy-minded Kurdish leaders who were the election's biggest winners cut their final deal. Those who need to worry most at this point are women, Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis of both sexes.
Saddam Hussein's sadistic, murderous dictatorship was no feminist paradise. But Iraqi women still managed to maintain access to educational, professional and personal opportunities denied to many of their sisters in neighboring Arab and Islamic countries. Now the future of these freedoms is in serious question. The dominant bloc of Shiite religious parties, along with their candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, want Iraq's new constitution to be directly inspired by conservative Islamic religious teachings derived from the Koran.
The secular Kurdish parties whose agreement is also needed to form a governing majority have the most leverage to resist these religious pressures. But the Kurds are focused mainly on maximizing their own region's independence. They seem far more interested in spending their political capital attaching the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to the territory of a future Kurdistan than in protecting the rights of secular Iraqis. Already, the Shiites seem set to control the powerful Interior Ministry, which will run major police agencies. If the Kurds also concede to them ministries like education and women's affairs, they could be consigning Iraqi women to a life of subjugation and millions of secular Iraqis, male and female, to a bleak, Iran-like future.
The other unspoken issue haunting these negotiations is the violently estranged Sunni Arab minority. With very few representative Sunnis now at the table, finding a way to recognize a legitimate Sunni leadership in the government will require some creative ingenuity. Yet until Shiite and Kurdish leaders recognize their own vital interest in making this happen, no progress is likely. With a new, permanent constitution due to be drawn up later this year, time is rapidly running out.
It is now out of the question for Washington to try to micromanage Iraqi political development. That would mock the elections and the claims of Iraqi self-government. But with more than 1,500 American troops already dead in Iraq and the next Iraqi government clearly dependent on the protection of more than 100,000 U.S. troops, Washington is not just entitled, but obliged to make clear America's interest in a free, democratic and unified Iraq. The United States cannot be complicit in allowing haggling politicians to subordinate those goals to their own narrow religious, separatist or divisive agendas.